It’s likely that there will be a sense of melancholy hanging over the city of Derby this afternoon. Its relationship with the Clough family is a long at somehwhat complex one which stretches back to the late 1960s, when an upstart manager arrived at The Baseball Ground from Hartlepool United and started about one of the more dramatic transformations of a football club that has ever been seen. Five years on from Brian Clough’s arrival at a Derby County Football Club that was, at that time, at the wrong end of the Second Division, they were the champions of England, and such events have a tendency to cement a bond even though, within eighteen months of lifting the Football League Championship, Clough senior had left the club amid acrimony after a very public falling out with the club’s then-chairman Sam Longson. It was a bond that even survived the even greater success that he managed at their biggest rivals, Nottingham Forest.
We are two and a half weeks away from the fortieth anniversary from the departure of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor from The Baseball Ground, and professional football has changed almost beyond recognition in those intervening four decades. Quite asides from anything else, the club no longer calls its home The Baseball Ground, but this is a mere trifle in comparison with the mere fact that the likelihood of a club the size of Derby County being able to come from nowhere to become the champions of England is now effectively zero. This is a fact that has become universally recognised and acknowledged within football in this country, but one is still tempted to wonder what, exactly, was going so badly wrong at Pride Park that it was felt necessary to remove Nigel Clough from his position as the manager of the club following a defeat yesterday lunchtime at, oh irony of ironies, Nottingham Forest.
Nigel Clough’s record during his time in charge of the club was mixed. In his four full seasons in charge, Derby County managed three mid-table finishes and a close shave with relegation in 2011, and this season had started very much as last season had ended, with three wins, two draws and four defeats from his nine matches so far. Clough leaves Pride Park with the club in fourteenth place in the table, which it would be stretch to describe as being anything like a disastrous start, and with another season of troubling neither the top or bottom of the Championship table appearing more likely than not this time around. And whilst it may be true to say that perhaps Nigel Clough had, to pluck a phrase from the vernacular, been unable to “take the club to the next level” (a phrase which appeared verbatim in the club’s official statement on the subject last night), we might also wish to take a moment to consider the fact that, at the time of Clough’s departure from Pride Park, Derby County is only two points from eighth place in the table, although there is a curious gap in the table above this point that is starting to open up which may prove difficult for any manager new or old to bridge.
Clough becomes the fiftieth out of the ninety-two managers in the Premier League and Football League to lose his job in the last twelve months and, whilst this season has not become quite as insane as last season was in this respect just yet (although few would rule out the possibility of this position changing as summer continues to turn to autumn), this is a statistic that still jumps out as a sad indictment of the short-termism that blights the game in this country at the moment. Clough was, somewhat remarkably, the fourth longest-serving manager of this ninety-two with four years and nine months at Pride Park under his belt at the time of his departure, but the question of what a manager of this club might be able to achieve this season is a very real one. After all, Derby County Football Club hasn’t challenged for promotion to the Premier League since its one-off disastrous spell in the Premier League in 2007/08, which led to a record low of eleven points which is unlikely to be broken in the near future, and several of the clubs above Derby in the table at the moment have the considerable advantage of Premier League parachute payments to ease the financial burden of bringing a better calibre of player into the club.
Supporters of any club who find themselves in this position can usually find some sort of solace from looking at the shortlist of managers that bookmakers have selected as the favourites to replace the previous incumbent, but there is little in the list available for Derby County that seem likely to make hearts jump. Serial Favourite To Be The New Manager, Gus Poyet, is in the mix, as are handful of other familiar names from this sort of exercise, Neil Warnock, Steve McClaren, Alex McLeish and Simon Grayson. The favourite for the job, however, is a name whose agricultural reputation hardly seems likely to bring crowds flocking back to Pride Park, Tony Pulis. Pulis, it has been reported, was at The City Ground yesterday afternoon, which adds to the suspicion that the decision to get rid of Nigel Clough may have been one that was already in a more advanced stage than had been made public, although it has also been suggested that Pulis’ presence at The City Ground yesterday afternoon was coincidental.
Perhaps if Pulis is appointed into the position and gets the team winning again and challenging for at least a place in the play-offs by the new year, Nigel Clough and his bonds with the club will be quickly forgotten. In the cold light of today, however, there is a sense that the supporters of Derby County wanted Clough to succeed in a way that they wouldn’t – or perhaps couldn’t – have wanted with anybody else. Nigel Clough was a link, albeit an indirect one, with the greatest years in the history of the club, and melancholy at his departure is to be expected and, whilst there is a certain irony to just how different Clough junior appeared in his demeanour in comparison with his father, he had at least, for the most part, been solid and kept the club a reasonable distance from the foot of the Championship table. Without the ownership of a crystal ball, it is impossible to say how easy or difficult it may be for his successor to improve upon the start to the season that the team has made. The supporters of Derby County Football Club will be hoping amongst that hopes that those who own the club have calculated this gamble successfully. The owners of the club themselves may well find themselves feeling a little heat if they haven’t.
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